Is Jesus the cure for anxiety?
Good morning! We continue our study in Matthew this morning, still in the middle of the sermon on the hill. We’ll be finishing up chapter 6, starting in verse 25 today.
After finishing chapter 6 today we’ll have just one chapter left in this sermon. It starts at the beginning of chapter 5, and goes to the end of chapter 7. So we’re roughly two-thirds of the way through this sermon, and it has only been 4 months since we started this section of Matthew; we started in the beginning of October.
Let’s start by jumping right in to today’s passage. Read with me from Matthew six, starting in verse 25. I’ll be reading from the CSB:
Matthew 6:25–34 CSB
25 “Therefore I tell you: Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Consider the birds of the sky: They don’t sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth more than they? 27 Can any of you add one moment to his life span by worrying? 28 And why do you worry about clothes? Observe how the wildflowers of the field grow: They don’t labor or spin thread. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was adorned like one of these. 30 If that’s how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow, won’t he do much more for you—you of little faith? 31 So don’t worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you. 34 Therefore don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Now, before we get into the meat of this passage, we have to first acknowledge the crucial transitional word which opens this passage by referring back to the previous passages. The word “Therefore.”
Maybe you’ve heard it phrased this way before: whenever you see the word “therefore,” you should ask what is the “therefore” there for?
That’s always a good question to ask, to make sure you’re reading and understanding a statement in context. “Therefore,” meaning “for that reason” indicates that a statement has been made which predicates or affirms some sort of consequence or statement to follow. What has been said gives light to what will be said, so let’s just take a moment to review what has been said.
In many ways these verses, 25-35, could be seen as a summary or concluding statement for the whole chapter, which starts with Jesus saying this:
Matthew 6:1 CSB
1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. Otherwise, you have no reward with your Father in heaven.
He then goes on to give 3 specific examples of different ways which people practice righteousness, and describes how not to do it to please others and glorify yourself, but rather to please God and glorify God.
Why? Otherwise you have no reward with your Father in heaven.
He then goes to expound on that idea of rewards in heaven, saying not to store up treasures on earth, but rather store up treasures in heaven, that where your heart is set is where your reward will be. That we ought to be generous rather than stingy, and it’s generosity that will fill us with light, so that we may shine that light, that we can be that light, going back to chapter 5, a light on a hill, not a hypocrite hiding a heart of darkness behind a mask of religion and good deeds.
And the last statement that Jesus made is this:
Matthew 6:24 CSB
24 “No one can serve two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
You cannot belong to two masters. Either money, wealth, or self-absorption and pride, or obsession with public affirmation can be your master, or God can be your master. Of course, he’s saying let God be your master.
With all that having been said...
Because you have been called to serve the kingdom of God rather than the kingdoms of the world, because you are called to align your own priorities with those of God’s kingdom, because as children of God and citizens of his kingdom we belong to him, and not to this world…Jesus makes this rather striking and profound statement:
Do not worry about your life.
The rest of this passage is centered around that word “worry.” or “Anxious/Anxiety.”
That word shows up six different times throughout this passage. It is the same Greek word each time, and most English translations have either “worry” or “anxious.” In Spanish, it’s “no se preocupen.” “Preocupen” or “procuparse” being the word for “worry” which is also related to the English word “preoccupy” through Latin. In this case, I actually think “preoccupy” could be another good way to translate this word…that is, “do not be preoccupied with these things...”
Let’s look at the original language for a moment, the Greek word is merimnao (“marry ‘im now”) - means to be anxious, concerned, worried, or care about.
This is actually a pretty broad definition, which is why it’s one of those words that gets translated differently depending on the translation, but also depending on the context of the passage.
We have quite a few different words in English to help pick up on this nuance, and the difference between care, concern, worry, anxiety, preoccupation. But it’s just one word in the Greek, so to understand how it’s used and what it means for us, we need to be careful to understand how the word is used in the context of each passage, how those passages relate to the rest of scripture, and the cultural context of how the word was used when it was written.
This word is used several other times throughout the New Testament, besides here in the sermon on the mount and in the parallel passage of teaching in Luke. Let’s look at a few of them together to get a better idea of the different ways it can be used.
The first one we’ll look at is from a well-known narrative covered in Luke chapter 10. Like its usage in our main passage, the tone here is one of admonishment. It’s being portrayed as negative, or at the very least unnecessary:
Luke 10:41–42 CSB
41 The Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has made the right choice, and it will not be taken away from her.”
We won’t get into the context of the actual story of what’s going on here, and there have been many different interpretations of this passage, but you can see how this word is being used in conjunction with the word “upset” to paint a picture of someone who is flustered and concerned with the logistics of the situation, while Jesus is implying that there is a greater priority, his very presence, which is cause for peace rather than concern.
Turn next to Philippians chapter 4. This is perhaps the most well-known use of this word, and most quoted. Like many verses, I’m afraid it’s often quoted inappropriately, but it is a nice concise statement:
Philippians 4:6 CSB
6 Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
“Don’t worry about anything.” or “Be anxious for nothing.”
That’s quite a statement, isn’t it? Don’t be anxious!
And we all know it’s as simple as just choosing not to be anxious, right? It’s just a switch you can turn on and off, right?
No, of course, it’s one of those things that’s much easier said than done. But it’s also important not to miss the second half of this verse. What comes after “don’t be anxious” is “BUT in everything, through prayer and petition WITH thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” In other words, don’t get caught up and preoccupied with worry, BUT instead bring those matters which may give cause to worry to God through prayer, with a heart of gratefulness and faith knowing that God is in control and will provide as he sees fit.
It’s also important not to isolate this one verse and ignore the context of the rest of scripture, and how this word is used. There is a danger of taking this one verse so literally that you miss the point.
Remember, this is the same word, marryimnow, that is used in Matthew 6. And it says not to marryimnow for anything.
And yet, that word isn’t always used in a negative context. Remember, the definition of the word is actually pretty broad, so it can be used in a variety of contexts. Let’s look at a couple more. The next one is going to be in Philippians again, back a couple chapters to chapter 2:
Philippians 2:19–21 CSB
19 Now I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon so that I too may be encouraged by news about you. 20 For I have no one else like-minded who will genuinely care about your interests; 21 all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.
Can you spot the marryimnow here? It’s translated into a much more positive word here, care. Genuine care. It’s a positive thing! In this context, care or concern for others is a GOOD thing!
Here’s another example of it being used in a positive context:
1 Corinthians 12:20–26 CSB
20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” Or again, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that are weaker are indispensable. 23 And those parts of the body that we consider less honorable, we clothe these with greater honor, and our unrespectable parts are treated with greater respect, 24 which our respectable parts do not need.
Instead, God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the less honorable, 25 so that there would be no division in the body, but that the members would have the same concern for each other. 26 So if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.
Here it’s translated as “concern” by the CSB, but again, it’s a good concern, the type of concern we should have for our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. And that same principle applies beyond the church to the concern we should have for humanity in general, the compassion and even urgent concern we should have with telling the good news of Christ to those who have not yet heard it!
It’s the same word, but in this case it’s something we should have. We should be experiencing marryimnow in this context.
One more passage, again in 1 Corinthians, that uses this word several times, and in this case it’s rather unique, almost positive and negative and neither all at the same time:
1 Corinthians 7:32–35 CSB
32 I want you to be without concerns. The unmarried man is concerned about the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord. 33 But the married man is concerned about the things of the world—how he may please his wife—34 and his interests are divided. The unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But the married woman is concerned about the things of the world—how she may please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own benefit, not to put a restraint on you, but to promote what is proper and so that you may be devoted to the Lord without distraction.
So, Paul says “I want you to be without concerns, but then implies it’s a very good thing to be concerned about the things of the Lord. And he talks about how a husband and wife are concerned with each other, which of course IS a good thing! But he’s pointing out one of the disadvantages of marriage to encourage those who are single that they have more time to preoccupy themselves with the Lord rather than their spouse. It’s another passage to be careful not to isolate from the rest of scripture! And we’re not going to unpack it all now of course, but I do think this is one example of where the word “preoccupy” would work really well in understanding the intention of what Paul is saying, don’t you?
The point though, in bringing up this passage, along with the others, is that it shows how the Greek word conveys a concept which is not in itself morally or theologically positive or negative, rather as having a moral or theological value which is determined by the motives and condition of the heart.
Boy, that’s a plot twist huh? (not) If you’ve been with us for pretty much any of the sermon on the mount, I should be starting to sound a bit like a broken record when I say that this issue boils down to the motives and condition of the heart! This has been an underlying principle throughout the whole thing, and it’s no less the case here, at the end of chapter 6.
Let’s return there, back to Matthew.
When Jesus says “do not worry about your life” he is certainly not calling his followers to a life of apathy or irresponsibility.
He IS saying that we shouldn’t be preoccupied or overcome with concern about basic necessities in life. We do need food and clothing, and our heavenly father knows that! He’s not out of touch with our daily lives, like some distant, inaccessible deity in the clouds. Jesus talks about the Father in such a way as to describe a creator intimately involved with his creation, who is not only responsible for creating life but also sustaining it. And, crucially, who is not only responsible for sustaining life but is more than capable of doing so.
Let’s take a moment to ponder the logic Jesus uses in this passage, starting again with verse 25:
Matthew 6:25 CSB
25 “Therefore I tell you: Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing?
That last sentence is a brilliant logical argument: God gave you life and a body, how miraculous is that, and if he can handle that don’t you think he can handle food and clothing? If he can do such a great thing, he can certainly do a lesser thing.
The next two sentences almost invert this logic to make the same point:
Matthew 6:26–27 CSB
26 Consider the birds of the sky: They don’t sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth more than they? 27 Can any of you add one moment to his life span by worrying?
Here he’s saying that if God takes care of the birds, would he not take care of humans, the pinnacle of his creation? In other words, if he is so attentive to such a lesser part of creation, how much more attention will he give to a greater part of creation?
He reiterates this point in the next 3 verses:
Matthew 6:28–30 CSB
28 And why do you worry about clothes? Observe how the wildflowers of the field grow: They don’t labor or spin thread. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was adorned like one of these. 30 If that’s how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow, won’t he do much more for you—you of little faith?
Here is where I want to pause and ponder the implications of what Jesus is saying.
In verse 30, he accuses his audience of having “little faith” because they are so concerned about their clothing.
We should, by all means, take this as a prompt to examine our hearts when experiencing anxiety, or overwhelming concerns, and trace them back to the root cause, the root belief, or lack of belief from which it stems.
In such cases, the issue is ultimately a lack of faith!
We are not truly believing that God is who he says he is and has proven himself to be, the all-powerful king of the universe with power even over death.
Or that we are who he says we are and has proven us to be, his cherished children who he loves and cares for.
He has proven each of these things, he proved it to the Israelites throughout their history, and then ultimately proved it to all humanity. He proved his love for us by becoming one of us, taking our place and dying for us, taking upon himself our weakness, and fears, and suffering, and death itself. And he proved his authority even over death by resurrecting from the dead, and he promises eternal life to all who follow him and put their faith in him rather than the promises and concerns of the world.
In that sense, Jesus does indeed free us from anxiety.
However, I do want to make a clarification when using that word “anxiety.” I think I prefer the translation “to worry about” or even “to be preoccupied with.” Not because “to be anxious” is inaccurate, but because that word carries a variety of connotations in our language and culture today.
Over 40 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder of some kind. That’s almost 20% of the adult population. Anxiety in this context is far from an exact science, and is full of controversy among scientists, psychologists, and medical professionals. These anxiety disorders include both emotional and physical symptoms, and range from generalized anxiety to social anxiety to panic disorders, to specific phobias, like spiders, heights, or public speaking.
The causes for these are not very well understood, the diagnoses are not as clear as say, diagnosing a broken bone or a heart condition, and the treatments are wide ranging and vary from medication to meditation.
This is an issue that goes beyond what science and physical observation can fully explain, at least for now, and I do believe that when people tackle anxiety without having any biblical or spiritual context, they are severely limiting themselves, in some cases to the point of never being able to fully reach the root of the problem, when it stems from the heart. From spiritual illness.
With all that being said, I want to be clear that NOT all anxiety, as defined by our culture, necessarily comes from a lack of faith. To some extent, anxiety is a natural part of the human experience. There are physical responses to our environment which are hard-weird. Certain things will trigger what we define as “anxiety” that have nothing to do with our own lack of faith. We might be able to trace it ultimately to the fall and ultimately say the culprit is sin, but not necessarily as a direct result of our sin.
For example, one of the most common triggers of anxiety is public speaking. Actually, this is part of how our bodies are designed to have a biochemical response to a high-pressure situation, and the adrenaline can actually help us perform better because of it! That’s pretty cool! But that’s the best-case scenario. Worst case, the same factors can also be absolutely crippling, and cause us to freeze up instead of perform under pressure.
But, in neither case is it an issue of faith.
In my personal opinion, if you DON’T have a visceral reaction to a giant, hairy spider crawling up your leg then there’s something wrong with you!
Now, God has called people with crippling fear of public speaking to become preachers, or of intense fear of flying to become missionaries flying all over the world. And in those cases, it may be considered a test of faith to follow God in spite of the anxiety.
In fact, we can look to Jesus as an example here. The way we define anxiety, I would say Jesus is described as experiencing intense anxiety in the garden of Gethsemane:
Luke 22:39–44 CSB
39 He went out and made his way as usual to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. 40 When he reached the place, he told them, “Pray that you may not fall into temptation.” 41 Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and began to pray, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me—nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” 43 Then an angel from heaven appeared to him, strengthening him. 44 Being in anguish, he prayed more fervently, and his sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground.
I looked at a bunch of different definitions of Anxiety, and it can be defined in so many different ways, from physical symptoms like a racing heart and sweaty hands to simply “being at unease.” Jesus was more than at unease here, he was in anguish and sweating blood. Obviously, this is a different experience than when he talks about worrying about food or clothes. Jesus never had any lack of faith, and acted in complete submission to the will of the father, despite being fully aware of the suffering he was about to face.
Anxiety itself is not necessarily an indicator of sin or a lack of faith, and it may never go away!
Some people can overcome anxiety simply by exposure, but that doesn’t always work! God may choose to relieve someone of anxiety through prayer and the power of his spirit, but not always. There are many valid treatments for anxiety in a wide variety of contexts. For some people all it takes is a good diet and exercise, others may need medication just to function, and others may be dealing with a root issue in their heart, a condition of the spirit that will not be solved simply by treating the symptoms on the surface.
I believe it’s most often a complex combination of genetics, environmental factors, and spirituality at play, and it’s that last factor, spirituality and spiritual conflict that too often gets overlooked in our culture, but that’s ultimately the conflict that Jesus came to overcome.
Ephesians 6:12 CSB
12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens.
Jesus came to establish God’s kingdom, overthrowing the tyranny of sin, and as we’ve said throughout these chapters, it’s this kingdom mindset that underscores the whole of Jesus’s sermon, so it’s fitting that this section would be wrapped up with a reminder pointing us in that direction:
Matthew 6:33–34 CSB
33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you. 34 Therefore don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
I’m jumping ahead in the story, but we know that Jesus defeated sin and death, and he is the hope we have for an eternity free of sin and death beyond this life. That’s the kingdom inheritance we have as sons and daughters of God. And that’s the kingdom perspective from which Jesus was preaching. He knew that he himself was offering the solution, that he was ushering in access to the kingdom, that he was conquering the world, not be overthrowing the Roman Empire, but the root causes of greed and violence and distrust.
We still live in a fallen world, full of sin and the consequences thereof. And while we have hope in a glorious future, we are not to ignore the plight of this present darkness. Rather we are to be full of light and generosity, beacons of God’s kingdom and images of Christ’s love. We are to be preoccupied not with finances or fashion, but with who God is, what he is doing, and with the needs of those around us, caring for others as God cares for us.
Colossians 3:1–4 CSB
1 So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.